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‘I worked harder in fifth year than in sixth’: How to get 625 points in the Leaving Cert

Caraíosa O’Farrell secured a record-equalling nine H1 grades last year. Here, she shares her tips for exam success

Exam preparation is personal, but I think everyone feels stressed out at some point, so you have to be resilient. There were plenty of times I got a grade that I was unhappy with, or I worried that I had taken too long a break from studying. Remember, setbacks do not prevent future exam success. The secret is to recover quickly from whatever bothered you, learn from it and move on.

I definitely worked harder in fifth year than in sixth year. From the start, I made sure I was keeping on top of everything we were doing in the class and focused on trying to understand the detail which helped me a lot in sixth year.

I started the Leaving Cert with a fresh mindset. It doesn’t matter how you did in the Junior Cert. The two exams are unrelated. Don’t let a poor grade in the Junior Cert hold you back from aiming high in the Leaving Cert.

Choose subjects that you have a genuine love for rather than ones that are deemed “easy”.


My passion is Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths), so I chose to study chemistry, physics, and applied maths, and found there was a lot of overlap between those subjects. I think it is important to pick subjects that interest you, as they retain your attention and keep you motivated to study.

Personally, I never found using other peoples’ notes useful, although it may work for some students. I found that writing up my own notes was very beneficial.

Across all the subjects, I think one of the most important things is to be familiar with how the marking schemes work. Doing past paper questions is the best way to prepare for the exams.


The past maths exam papers have a lot of repetitive questions that are just asked in different ways, so familiarising yourself with them is important. Try to treat all the questions like fun puzzles and learn to enjoy tackling unfamiliar questions. Make sure to devote a lot of time to algebra, because it is found within all the other chapters. Algebra is the most important section, and if you don’t understand it properly you will find the later chapters more challenging. Use more than one textbook if possible!

By using questions from multiple textbooks you get exposure to a broader range of concepts. Don’t fall into the mindset of thinking it’s impossible to study maths. Devote the same amount of time to practising maths questions as you would to studying a subject such as biology. Remember that higher level maths seems way more intimidating in fifth year than it does towards the end of sixth year. Keep at it.


The Irish oral is such a large component of the Leaving Cert that it deserves a lot of attention. Learning how to speak Irish for fun is the best way to prepare. My primary school was a Gaelscoil, which helped. (If you are a parent, consider sending your child to an Irish-speaking school. It makes the Leaving Cert easier as it gives them one subject in the bag, not to mention a love for an important language). I recommend going to the Gaeltacht in the summers if you can.

I suggest selecting a college where Irish is spoken all the time – for example, I loved Spleodar. For students who are already in sixth year, think about setting up or joining an Irish-speaking club in your school where you can get practice speaking in Irish at lunchtime or after school. Some good podcasts to listen to are “Beo Ar Éigean” and “Gaeilge Anois” on Spotify. I worked on building up my vocabulary, as that helps with all the questions on the paper.


It’s never too late to start reading for fun. During my English paper one exam, I found myself quoting ideas I got from books and online articles I had read. Remember that the composition is worth a large proportion of your marks. Across the full paper, from my experience, answering the question effectively is way more important than answering it in a “pretty” way. It’s easier said than done, but it took me a while to learn how to actually answer the question I was being asked.

Applied Maths

I understand the course has changed this year. Last year, practising past papers was the main component of my applied maths study. There are some interesting past paper questions from as far back as the 80s which I would suggest taking a look at.


For the French oral, I had a notebook with loads of potential questions and answers. Learn the vocabulary around as many possible themes off by heart. My teacher was always practising our orals, which was really useful. If your teacher does not have you practising regularly, ask them to do mock French orals with you. For the aural, I would often listen to “Little Talk in Slow French” on Spotify. I would also expose my ear to French from films and YouTube videos. Listening to fast spoken French, which was far more difficult than the real aural conversations, made the real aural feel much easier.

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For writing, I found it helpful to learn a certain amount of phrases off by heart and practise using them. I think it is good to ask your teacher to correct your work for you as often as possible. For comprehension, it comes down to having a rich supply of vocabulary.


Physics is a lot more enjoyable if you have an interest in it outside of the curriculum. I loved watching physics YouTube videos. The experiments are worth spending time on as they make up a decent amount of the marks. I always struggled with electricity, and some of the YouTube videos make it a bit easier to understand. A useful channel is “Physics Online”. I would not spend much time learning textbook definitions off by heart. Sometimes those definitions don’t even align with the marking scheme. I went through the past papers and every time a definition was asked, I would note it and come up with my own answer using a combination of the marking scheme and the textbook. I would suggest building up a list of these type of answers and reading through it fairly regularly.


Experiments really matter! Try to understand them in the moment when you carry them out and it will save you from having to relearn them again. The calculations are also important, as almost every question will have something to calculate, so I practised this a lot. Remember, you have plenty of time in this paper, so it really is about understanding. Starting from the basics and building up is how I approached it. YouTube videos like Master titrations were helpful.

I made a list of the past questions and drafted template answers. Going through the list of possible questions gives you a nice recap of the whole course, but also a lot of the questions repeat, so you will have at least one really strong question if you do this. The question on the paper which involves short answers comes up every year and it always has repeated questions. Go through all the short-answer questions and learn the answers to the ones that come up again and again.


My method for studying biology was to speedily but very regularly revise prior chapters throughout the year. While you are learning a new chapter, always give yourself quick recaps of previous chapters to retain the detail on a regular basis. Also, I focused on doing past exam papers as there is quite a lot of repetition in Biology questions. In Biology, understanding the marking scheme by doing past papers and self-correcting them against the marking scheme helps you to understand what the examiners are looking for. Also answer the question only, as you get no extra marks for going above and beyond and you want to manage your time sensibly.


For Business, it is useful to try to understand the concepts from the outset. It is worth the time to get that understanding as it is much easier to churn out the answers, especially in the applied business question, which tests application of business concepts. Learning it all off is hard work, so put your energy into comprehending the material. Also give yourself regular quick recaps of prior chapters. I suggest doing lots of past questions to get used to business expression, understand the marking scheme, and it is also useful as the themes often repeat.